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Health insurance premiums for Massachusetts residents who purchase unsubsidized health insurance through the Health Connector Authority will see average increases next year of between 2.2 percent and 9.3 percent, according to rates approved by a state board Thursday.
Those who enroll in the state-subsidized private health insurance, known as Connector Care, and those enrolled in dental plans through the Connector can expect to see average premium decreases of 2.1 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively.
The Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority Board on Thursday voted to give its final seal of approval to 15 health insurance companies offering a total of 83 plans for small group and non-group coverage.
Among the plans approved Thursday were the "bronze plans" offered through the Connector, which have low monthly premiums and some pre-deductible doctor visits but come with higher co-pays.
Health Connector officials had previously told the board the 2015 bronze plans would have to be eliminated because they no longer meet certain federal requirements. Instead, carriers were required to propose new bronze plans, which will come with a premium increase and a "major increase" in out-of-pocket expenses for customers.
"We were expecting a reduction in rates, but we did see the increase in bronze plan premiums of about 2.2 percent," said Brian Schuetz, the Health Connector's director of program and product strategy.
Given the unexpected increase, Schuetz said the Connector faced the challenge of deciding whether to suggest 2015 bronze plan members renew in a silver plan — the next tier up — to maintain a similar plan design but with a "very significant 24 percent" increase in premium, or to suggest they renew in the 2016 bronze plans, which will include an average deductible increase of $1,000.
"Our new recommendation today is to map bronze to bronze to maintain that level of premium balance between the two and to avoid rate shock for our consumers," Schuetz told the board. "But — and it's an important but — to mitigate the consumer confusion impact we are going to put out a special communication to these members to explain what's happening, what we did in terms of mapping, highlight in no uncertain terms the changes in the plan design and to encourage shopping for plans, where appropriate, so consumers can find the plan that meets their budget and their medical needs."
Though those enrolled in bronze plans last year will have to change plans — as will others whose plans are being discontinued by the carrier — more than 90 percent of Health Connector customers will be renewed into their same plan for 2016.
Thursday's rate-setting vote came as the Connector gears up for the open enrollment period — which will run Nov.1 through Jan. 31, 2016 — and the meeting also included an update on the Connector's open enrollment outreach strategy.
This year, the Connector will open additional walk-in centers in Springfield, Fall River, Brockton and Lowell, and will extend customer service hours during open enrollment.
The four new help centers will supplement those already established in Boston and Worcester. The locations were selected to target communities with the greatest number of uninsured residents, Director of Customer Service and Operations Jen Bullock said.
The Connector will also partner with the Department of Revenue to send enrollment information to the roughly 180,000 people who self-reported on their tax forms as not carrying the minimum level of health insurance.
"We're thrilled to announce enhanced services for this fall's open enrollment. Two hundred additional hours of customer service availability, four additional walk-in centers statewide, online self service for member accounts, Department of Revenue outreach to the uninsured, a media campaign focused on ethnic media in underserved areas, better call center support for navigators, the return of provider search and improvements to the payment portal," Connector Executive Director Louis Gutierrez said. "We have real hopes for a great fall."
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